Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Ethics and Accuracy in Crowd-sourced Data

by Isobel Coleman
February 14, 2012

Actor George Clooney talks to observers from Japan during the south Sudan independence referendum in Juba in January 2011 (Thomas Mukoya/Courtesy Reuters).


Earlier this month, I wrote about how technology innovations are being used for humanitarian assistance, focusing on the work of the Kenyan-based NGO Ushahidi. Several readers posed some important questions about the reliability of crowd-sourced data. How can we trust information that could very well be manipulated by various groups, including government-backed groups, which clearly have a particular political agenda? (One reader noted that many tweets from Yemen last year were erroneous. There are multiple examples of this kind of disinformation.)

This question – and others related to the validity and security of data – is much on the minds of those directly involved in applying crowd-sourced data. Last week, several people involved with the Satellite Sentinel Project (an effort launched by George Clooney in 2010 that uses satellite imagery and field reports as an early-warning system to draw attention to atrocities in Sudan), penned a blog saying that “crisis mappers” need an “ethical compass” to help figure out how best to responsibly use the information coming from social media, field reports, and digital cartography. As the authors note:

“Crisis mapping is no longer just about aggregating tweets from election observers and participants in political protests, or placing dots on a map to describe an earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Japan. It is increasingly about going head-to-head with hostile intelligence and security services intent on obstructing, co-opting, and distorting the data that crisis mappers gather. In these new, tense circumstances, the consequences of action, inaction, and indecision all carry weight. When violent regimes assume that the world is watching, they do act differently – and crisis mappers must prepare for that reality.”

The good news is that the field is well aware of these challenges and trying to move toward a shared set of standards. As Patrick Meier, Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, notes in this blog, World Vision held a workshop last year that brought together a number of important players in the field of crisis mapping to discuss such issues as Do No Harm, Verification, Risk Mitigation, and Impartiality. One of the participating organizations, Standby Task Force, wrote that “a clear outcome of the workshop was that there is a clear need for data protection standards that are applicable for the new digital context we operate in, i.e., a world of social media, crowd sourcing, and volunteer geographical information. Our colleagues at the International Committee of the Red Cross have since taken the lead on drafting protocols relevant to a data 2.0 world in which volunteer networks and disaster-affected communities are increasingly digital.”

It is reassuring that leaders in the field are already grappling with these important questions. To ensure the collection of accurate information from the crowd, crisis mapping sites may also look to their contributors’ tendency to self-regulate. The fact is that this is a field with enormous potential, and it is evolving very rapidly. The need for standards and an ethical framework is obvious, but a consensus will likely be difficult to achieve across the board, since interests in using the information will naturally diverge among some of the important players.

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  • Posted by Jonathan Hutson

    UPDATE: Response to comments on our Global Brief piece, ‘Crisis Mapping Needs an Ethical Compass’:

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